Percy Bysshe Shelley's "On Death"

Updated on October 7, 2017
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Percy Bysshe Shelley



As one of the most noted poets of the Romantic movement, Percy Bysshe Shelley focused much of his poetry on spiritually inspired topics. With a keen eye to the possibilities of life after death, the speaker in Shelley's "On Death" dramatizes a quotation from the King James Version of the Bible.

The full quotation from Ecclesiastes 9:10 is "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might, for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom in the grave whither thou goest."

Shelley focuses on the final clause of the quotation to offer a little drama that may brighten the human mind's natural tendency to be darkened by the notion of losing all those functions.

Reading of Shelley's "On Death"

First Stanza: "The pale, the cold, and the moony smile"

The speaker in Shelley's "On Death" is motivated to dramatize his response by the Ecclesiastic quotation, "There is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest."

The speaker begins by likening the human sense awareness to a pale, cold, moony smile that is fickle and wan and "flits round our steps till their strength is gone."

In individual, according to this speaker, is like an island with the moon shining on it. Though it is surrounded by the sea, yet is it lonely and desolate.

Second Stanza: "O man! hold thee on in courage of soul"

The speaker then commands humanity to buck up and not lose hope that he can make his life useful. Despite the coming of the grave and "the billows of clouds that around thee roll," the individual who remains courageous in spirit can rest easily.

The courageous individual need not bend his life to the dictates of a fanciful Hell and Heaven but keep his mind open to "the universe of destiny."

Third Stanza: "This world is the nurse of all we know"

The nurturing, mothering world offers death as an ostensible final reward and death is "a fearful blow." But that is true only of a mind that allows itself to absorb only the physical level of reality.

The speaker implies that a physical reality only is impossible, because what the senses detect is something that will "pass like an unreal mystery."

Fourth Stanza: "The secret things of the grave are there"

Even though the human body will lose its "fine-wrought eye and wondrous ear" and all other senses, all the greatness of the soul waits in a "boundless realm of unending change."

Death might seem to stop the spirit, but it only stops the body of sense-awareness, allowing a higher level of awareness to be engaged.

Fifth Stanza: "Who telleth a tale of unspeaking death?"

The speaker concludes with a series of questions that all lead the reader to one answer: each human soul is the entity responsible for all the levels of information on the three realms of physical, astral, and causal.

When the individual unites with that soul or flame of life, s/he also unites with "the hopes of what shall be / With the fears and the love for that which we see."

What we see, that is, perceive with the senses, is but a shadow veil of what waits after soul- awareness.

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    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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